A Group Of Puerto Rican Activists Is Calling For The “Ashes” Of The Oversight Board

08/28/2017 01:11 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2017
Juan C. Dávila, 2017 ©

Next Thursday (August 31st, 2017) activists in Puerto Rico will head to the streets to protest the Puerto Rico Oversight Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). That day marks the first anniversary of the first major protest against PROMESA, which was organized by an activist group called, Se Acabaron Las Promesas (Promises Are Over). In 2016 the group managed to shutdown the 1st PROMESA Conference in San Juan, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce of Puerto Rico. Likewise, that same day U.S. former president, Barack Obama, appointed the members of the Fiscal Control Board (FCB), which constitutes PROMESA.

In less than a year, the FCB has proven to be less than incapable of solving the economic crisis in Puerto Rico. As the board is looking forward to implement austerity policies to pay Wall Street bondholders, the whole process is turning into a Corporate Royal Rumble; and while the Governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, is playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” with the FCB, bondholders are turning to the Courts, and bond insurance companies are biting their nails. Presently, the FCB is demanding a series of austerity measures that include a reduction on working days and pensions to public employees, plus even more cutbacks to education.

But while corporate interests wrestle (negotiate) their profits from interest rates and assets with the Courts, the FCB, and the Puerto Rican Government; the people of Puerto Rico are been cast as the audience outside of the Vulture Ring where all of these entities continue to gamble with the livelihood and future of Puerto Ricans.

In rejection to all of this neoliberal mess, the group Promises Are Over is gathering activists all around Puerto Rico to rally under the message “Las únicas cenizas que queremos son las de la Junta” (The only ashes we want are those of the Fiscal Control Board), and march next Thursday to Puerto Rico’s Financial District, known as “Milla de Oro”, where the offices of the FCB are located. This symbolic message is inspired on an ongoing environmental struggle in Puerto Rico, where residents of the southern town of Peñuelas have been protesting the deposit of toxic ashes in a landfill next to their communities, since 2015.

The phrase “Las únicas cenizas que queremos son las de la Junta...” was coined by the arts collective, La Puerta. The collect
La Puerta, Facebook (facebook.com/lapuertabandera)
The phrase “Las únicas cenizas que queremos son las de la Junta...” was coined by the arts collective, La Puerta. The collective painted this wall next to the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in the Capital City of San Juan.

These ashes come from a coal-fired power plant in the town of Guayama, which is operated by a multi-national corporation named, Applied Energy Systems (AES). Every time the trucks come into the landfill in Peñuelas to dispose the toxic ashes, activists and residents put their bodies on the line trying to stop them. But the Police of Puerto Rico manages to escort the trucks into the landfill and provides security to the private companies involved, often hurting and arresting protestors who concerned about their health.

According to the Government of Puerto Rico and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), these ashes are non-toxic if mixed with water, but environmentalists think otherwise. In a recent interview on Democracy Now! Dr. Arturo Massol stated, “The health impacts of the ashes can range from allergies to respiratory problems, to issues as dramatic as birth defects or spontaneous abortions. It is a hazardous material, it is a non-biodegradable material.” Massol is a professor of microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico and board member of Casa Pueblo, an environmental organization that won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002.

The group Promises Are Over is motivated by the struggle of the residents in Peñuelas, while also identifying intersectionalities between the objectives of the FCB and the disposal of toxic ashes. After a press conference on August 17th, Jocelyn Velázquez said, “The Fiscal Control Board doesn't come only as a political body to collect the debt. They come with an ideology. An ideology that turns all of our natural resources, all of our land, water, and sun in one more commodity to pay the bondholders.” Velázquez is a spokesperson for the group Promises Are Over.

Also after the press conference, Promises Are Over challenged the local government by pouring buckets of coal ash over the steps of the Capitol Building that houses the Puerto Rican legislature, which earlier this summer approved a law that legalizes the disposal of toxic ash in Puerto Rico. An anonymous activist from Promises Are Over stated to the press, “We want Puerto Rico to close the coal-fired power plant. The only ashes that we want are those of the Fiscal Control Board.” One week later the group poured buckets of coal ash again, this time in the offices of the Junta de Calidad Ambiental (Board of Environmental Quality) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

An unknown activist pours coal ashes inside a local government building where the Board of Environmental Quality (JCA) and th
Juan C. Dávila, 2017 ©
An unknown activist pours coal ashes inside a local government building where the Board of Environmental Quality (JCA) and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA) have their main offices.

The situation in Peñuelas is part of a broader energy crisis. Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has been inefficient in providing quality services to its citizens; additionally it has also failed to move away from its dependency on fossil fuels. On top of that PREPA is indebted with more than 9 billion dollars, and recently filed for bankruptcy under Title III, this opens the gateway for the entire privatization of energy services in Puerto Rico and enforces the dependency on fossil fuels for the island.

On August 31st, 2017 the group Promises Are Over is protesting budget cuts, privatization, deregulation, fossil fuel industries, and the Fiscal Control Board that is orchestrating a new neoliberal agenda for Puerto Rico.

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